EXCLUSIVE: Thorpe, a drama about the formative years of Native American Olympic track and field Gold Medalist Jim Thorpe, is on a fast track, just in time for Native American Heritage Month. Director Tracey Deer will direct a script whose latest draft is by William N. Collage (Emancipation). Pic is based on Jim Thorpe: World’s Greatest Athlete, a book by Robert Wheeler, who is exec producer and has provided underlying materials. The film also has the support and participation of the Thorpe family.
Thorpe will focus on Thorpe’s time at Carlisle Industrial Indian School, which became the model for government and church-run Native American boarding schools that pervaded the United States and Canada in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. its motto ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man,’ Carlisle isolated Native children from their families and tribal communities, and systematically stripped them of their languages, customs, medicines, religious beliefs, regalia, and even their own names—to assimilate them into mainstream society.
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Jim Thorpe attended Carlisle as a teen and eventually played college football there under legendary coach Glenn “Pop” Warner, whom, the filmmakers said, sold Carlisle football to the public as an athletic version of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Collage’s script tells the story of Thorpe’s resilience as he ascends to college football dominance and ultimately achieves Olympic glory at the Stockholm games in 1912. Hanging onto his identity was hard enough, but those medals went by the wayside when his Olympic triumphs erased from the official records less than a year later, for collecting small sums for playing baseball. The stripping was described as the “greatest injustice in Olympic history.” After winning the pentathlon and decathlon in 1912, Thorpe was presented his medals by King Gustav V of Sweden, who told him, “You sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
Thorpe would compete in football, baseball and basketball, but the AAU move was an enduring blight on his legacy. There is connective tissue between righting that wrong and this film. Back in the late ‘60s, bio author Wheeler hitch-hiked cross country to interview 200 of Thorpe’s contemporaries. Among them was Burt Lancaster, the only actor to portray Thorpe in a mainstream film, in the 1951 Warner Brothers’ drama Jim Thorpe All-American. The actor told Wheeler that Everett Freeman wrote the script in one weekend in his room at the Beverly Hilton, “following a thin line of truth,” and using only a four-page Reader’s Digest condensation of the athlete’s life. Looking for a Hollywood happy ending, Freeman, Warner Brothers and Lancaster approached the Amateur Athletic Union, the American organization responsible for designating Thorpe’s amateur status in 1913. Warner Brothers offered the AAU a “blank check” if they would recommend the restoration of the Olympic Gold Medals to the International Olympic Committee so their movie could end “in a blaze of glory.” They were flatly rebuffed. Thorpe passed away shortly after the film debuted.
That idea inspired producers of the current film to right this century-old wrong. They began an effort in 2020 forming Bright Path Strong to bring awareness to Thorpe’s story and pleading with the IOC to make a rare reversal and reinstate Jim Thorpe’s Olympic Gold Medals. That goal was finally achieved on July 15, 2022, the 110 year anniversary of Thorpe’s Olympic wins. The news went viral and overjoyed the Thorpe family, Native Americans and Thorpe fans around the world.
Producing for Pictureworks Entertainment are Abraham Taylor, Josh Aker, Chris Taylor and Nedra Darling. Tribal partners who funded development and who will help present the film are: Tuolumne Band of Me Wuk Indians, Chicken Ranch Rancheria Me-Wuk Indians of California, Tonto Apache Tribe, The Mohegan Tribe, Sealaska, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, and Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay.
Deer, the first Mohawk to win a Gemini Award for her docu work, said she was “honored and thrilled to bring Jim Thorpe’s incredible story to the screen so audiences worldwide can experience the tremendous hurdles he overcame to become the greatest athlete of the 20th century. His resilience, passion and pride are shining examples of the greatness that Indigenous people are capable of but that the dominant society has tried so hard to quash over the years. The residential school system is just one of the injustices Jim and so many of our people have had to survive. Just as Jim has now been rightfully restored to his proper place as an Olympic champion, so too it is time for the world to face the realities of systemic racism and persecution that has permeated North American society so that we can begin to heal as a nation. My goal for Thorpe is to create a film that offers hope and inspiration, in spite of so much darkness, to show what is possible when you dare to dream. This is the gift of Jim’s legacy to us all.”
Thorpe’s granddaughter Teresa said “seeing Granddad’s legacy validated 110 ten years after the fact should inspire us all to never think our current efforts are in vain. Present day issues of social unrest in the United States cry for a completely level playing field and it is the perfect moment in time to correct the persistent injustice that has marred his legend for so long. He was the true winner in the hearts and minds of many and the realization of Granddad’s complete reinstatement officially confirms his true record. I feel honored to be able to participate in making this movie a reality.”
The package has come together thanks to the efforts of numerous Native American tribes that have banded together to fund development and get Thorpe to the start line.
That includes producer Nedra Darling, who is from the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation. “I was always taught, “things happen for a reason,” and that has been true in building this movie. I strongly believe the Creator has been guiding us through the path to recreate Jim Thorpe’s amazing story, and it led us directly to Tracey Deer. We are entering a golden era in Native filmmaking and elevated representation for Native Americans in film, television and all forms of popular culture. Just as Jim was at the forefront of breaking ground for Native Americans in athletics, Tracey Deer is blazing a trail at the forefront of her industry. She is one of the most talented Native female filmmakers to emerge during this time, and I couldn’t be more pleased for Jim Thorpe’s story to be in her hands. I believe she is the ideal person to help reclaim Jim’s rightful place in history, and signal to the World Jim Thorpe was never defeated.”
Producer Chris Taylor, from the Chitimacha Tribe of Louisiana felt the film “could have only been told one way. And that is with broad support from Indian Country. The real story of the boarding schools has not been told to a broad general audience, and while this movie will be Jim’s story, it also belongs to the more than 140 tribes whose children were taken to Carlisle and the myriad additional tribes in the U.S. and Canada whose children were taken to the other schools Carlisle inspired. We felt there was no other way to tell this story than to invite every tribe in the country to be a part of it. Over the past 7 years we have logged thousands of miles, met with dozens of tribal councils, hundreds of tribal leaders and thousands of tribal people to share our vision for this story. And while not all were able to participate, the response has been nearly universal: gratitude that Indian Country was coming together to tell our own story and excitement that we were doing everything we could to bring this story to the largest audience possible. We hope this film can be a part of a healing process that has begun but has a long road ahead.”
Chicken Ranch Rancheria Chairman Lloyd Mathiesen spoke of the satisfaction of “helping remove the last stain to Jim Thorpe’s illustrious legacy and to help the world learn his real story through this important film. His resilience and perseverance stands as a beacon to our youth and shows them anything is possible.”
Deer is represented by CAA, attorney Jeff Bernstein and manager Perry Zimel; Collage is CAA, Syndicate Entertainment and McKuin Frankel.
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